Saturday, February 02, 2008

Testament: 1-10

Testament is a comic that is tailor made for me. Grant Morrison is quoted on the cover, and the book itself, a tale of cyber-revolutionaries battling the man against a backdrop of gods and magic is just like The Invisibles, and countless projects that I’ve done myself. These are the themes I find fascinating, the motifs that obsess me for whatever reason, and they’re all gathered under one roof in this book. The book itself is not a total success, Rushkoff lacks Morrison’s ability to create fully realized characters and singular emotional moments, but there’s so much good stuff here, I can highly recommend the book, and am sad to see that it’ll soon be cancelled.

People, both in and out of the comics world, frequently crack on the medium and its obsession with telling the same superhero stories over and over again. But, I think there’s as wide a wealth of quality material as in films or TV. Look at Vertigo alone, over the past ten years, they’ve produced as many classic series as HBO. The Invisibles, Preacher or Sandman all stand with the best of film or television. Recently, Vertigo has had a crisis of identity similar to HBO’s, doing a lot of great series that haven’t broken out in the way that their 90s works did.

I think a lot of that is due to a change in the market. Particularly with these complex, longform works, people are inclined to wait until they’re out in trade, or even until the series finishes to buy it. I know with Y: The Last Man, I’m a few trades behind, and I’ll just wait until the last trade comes out, then read the whole thing. The same is true for 100 Bullets, which is so complex, I doubt anyone could fully get it in monthly format. So, even though they might lose money on the singles of these books, they’ll be selling Y TPBs for years, and making a lot of money there.

Anyway, back to the book itself. Testament takes a Philip K. Dick “the empire never ended” style approach to storytelling, claiming that the same conflicts chronicled in the bible are happening today. To do this, he uses the cast of present day characters in various biblical roles, and crosscuts between the two different time periods, which usually line up, but occasionally split from each other. It’s an interesting concept, and works to expand the scope of the stories he’s telling. I think Rushkoff’s central point is that the narrative of the bible itself is what has engaged people, that these stories themselves, not the historical events they refer to, are what has engaged people. That’s what he has the God stand in say in the book, that it’s the word itself that will make people believe, the word that gives him power.

If the bible is the text at the center of Western civilization, the source of our moral codes and worldview, then it would make sense that the narratives it contains would recur. In the world in which we live, George Bush casts himself as a holy warrior battling the Islamic menace, he wants to connect with that biblical impulse, make us believe we are living in important times, and that America is God’s chosen land.

However, one of Rushkoff’s central points is that the bible has been co-opted by the forces of darkness and oppression. The characters in the bible weren’t like Bush, they weren’t powerful, they were revolutionaries, stirring up trouble and battling the existing order. Bush would be the pharaoh in the bible, the man oppressing the freedom fighters. Reading the book made me think about the awful way the religious right has co-opted the story of Jesus and warped it. The real person, or biblical character, was out there with prostitutes, the sick and diseased, helping them and fighting the entrenched religious power. How have we reached the point where people can use Jesus’s message to spread hate, hatred of gays, hatred of those who are different than us?

Why is it that those who claim to believe the most are the ones who don’t want to help the poor, and who want to give tax cuts to the rich? It’s all about control of the narrative, Jesus would have supported gay rights, he would have been there with the oppressed peoples, fighting for them. He would not invade Iraq to impose his own order with violence, he would have done it with love. This is relevant whether you’re a Christian or not, the message of the man was a positive one, but the religious establishment frequently corrupts it.

So, that’s the backdrop against which the book was born. It’s hugely relevant for our times, but there is some clumsiness in the execution. The core characters are Jake and his cell of revolutionary dissidents. The problem with the book is that we don’t really get to know these characters. Jake is sketched out to some extent, but there’s no one I deeply care about in the cell. Most of them are just there, spouting the usual system-shaking rhetoric.

The character who stands out the most is Dinah, and I’m torn on her. On the one hand, she’s the most powerful and connected character in the gang, equated with the goddess Astarte, she is able to see things in a way no one else can. I absolutely love the scenes where she goes into the tank and is able to see outside of time in a trippy, Promethea like panel array. At the end of each major storyline, she goes on a journey that gives her a view of the larger stakes, and it feels like she is going to be a major player as the book goes on.

The downside of the character is that she’s also presented as a fucktoy for these all male revolutionary band. She’s always sexualized, wearing little to no clothes, and looking a bit ridiculous for it. While everyone else is wearing a shirt and jeans, she’s wearing a bra and panties. I can understand the desire to equate her to Astarte, and make her sexuality a factor, but it comes off more as pandering, and a relic of the sexism inherent in 60s countercultural activity. She doesn’t get her own agency, she’s a tool to move Jake’s storyline forward. I can see Rushkoff’s intention, but there’s a thin line between thematic point and an artist who likes to draw big tits. Ragged Robin was a similarly sexualized character in Invis Volume II, but she always seemed in control of her presentation, Dinah seems more subject to male order.

The first few issues make the biblical parallels very clear and direct, but as it goes on, we witness more revisions to the stories, individual action subverting the pre-ordained direction that God has chosen for the characters. This comes to the fore in the Joseph and the Dreamcoat story that closes out the second volume. There, the Joseph story sets up our expectations, which are subverted in the end. Alec is not able to trick Fallow, but Jake’s crew injects a chaos element into the situation, and disrupts everything, only to find that no one cares.

The whole Manna thing raised some questions for me. I was able to follow most of the book pretty easily, but I wasn’t sure the point he was making with the Manna. The basic idea seemed to be that money controls us so much, and is so powerful that it is inevitable it takes on a life of its own. The Manna will be a living currency that can literally control us from the inside. It’s a bit heavy handed, but it generally works. The place that Rushkoff lets me down is the ads for the Manna. The clich├ęd teen pitch should be a bit more sophisticated for a post MySpace generation. Do kids respond to TV ads as much anymore, wouldn’t it have been cooler to create Manna profiles on MySpace, literally have the Manna come alive and promote itself?

I’m also not sure what his great fear about the world currency is. Would that control us any more than our individual ones? I suppose it’s part of the biblical parallels, but a world currency isn’t too high on my list of fears. I guess the point is, the more unified the world becomes, the easier it is for one person to control.

The thing I really love about the book is the way the worldview meshes all kinds of human religious history together. Gods watch over everything that happens, influencing the happenings, and occasionally intervening. It reminds me a bit Neil Gaiman’s worldview, the way old gods struggle to maintain their influence, and appear in new ways. The difference between this work and Neil’s is that Neil’s stuff always remains fictional, you don’ get the sense he believes in the reality of what’s happening in the way that Rushkoff does. Like Morrison’s work, this is sci-fi, but based very much in philosophical reality. It’s a treatise within a story, like Promethea or The Invisibles.

And, generally, the book works best on an idea level. Each issue left me thinking about a lot of things, and the stories do have a lot of relevance to the world we live in today. This is the kind of work people should be reading and considering in the world we live in. I love the meshing of concepts and reality into a kind of indeterminate mytho-reality where everything’s true.

But, the book is definitely held back by the lack of emotional engagement with a lot of the cast. The characters frequently seem manipulated by the need to conform to the biblical storylines, they don’t have their own agency. Again, this is part of the thematic point, but it winds up hemming them in. The cell in particular is just a collection of clich├ęs. However, not every writer is about emotion, and Rushkoff is doing his thing, and doing it well. I’m going to pick up the third trade this week, I’m eager to see how things develop.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Farscape: 1x03 - 1x06

After watching a few more episodes of Farscape, I’m really impressed with the show. I’ve seen a lot of sci-fi shows, so I’ve seen most of the concepts behind these episodes before, but the show has such engaging and likable characters that the old material feels fresh. I would like to see some more ongoing storylines, but the show has a sense of history that makes you at least feel like they didn’t just forget what happened last week. It’s like Buffy in that respect, the characters change, and that’s what the show is centered around.

The thing I like most about the show is definitely the characters. Crichton started out as a kind of blank slate generic hero, but over these episodes we’ve got to see some of his flaws and personality quirks. The thing that makes him interesting is that everyone thinks he’s dumb, so the role we’d expect him to play, that of strong male leader, is undercut. He can’t lead, and when he tries to, he frequently is unable to deal with the specifics of the universe he’s found himself in.

His primary counterpart is Aeryn, whose intensity and business only attitude makes Crichton play the traditional female role in their relationship. I think that’s what makes the dynamic between the two of them so effective, the subversion of expectations. She’s the one who’s prone to violence in defense of her honor, while Crichton has a more grounded attitude. Crichton is an ordinary guy who finds himself transported from our reality to a sci-fi genre universe. He is aware of the conceits of the genre, but recognizes that people don’t need to use violence to solve their problems. So, his solutions to the problems usually run counter to our genre expectations.

Aeryn is always a joy to watch, though I’m unsure how they’ll keep her mix of heavy intensity and slight vulnerability as the series goes on. The further you go, the more humanized a character becomes, and that will change the dynamic. This may be a good thing though, if she’s outside the peacekeeper world, she should change. She’s had this culture of war instilled in her over the years, how easy will it be for her to change? It’s a bit head on, but the end of ‘Thank God It’s Friday Again’ addresses this, with her pride at solving a problem with science, not violence.

That episode is a good example of what I like about the show. Rather than just use the standalone stories as something to fill the time, most of them have some kind of interesting philosophical underpinnings. The question behind this story is what is happiness? Is a false happiness better than real sadness? They are suspicious of what happened to D’Argo, but when you see him and Zhaan out in the fields, they seem more at peace than they are on the ship. There’s a pull between wanting them to stay there and enjoy life, and the inevitable conclusion in which the false happiness is debunked.

For once, I’d like to see a sci-fi story about a utopia that isn’t built on a lie. Where would the tension come from? Perhaps it could be from our inherent resistance to anything that appears too good to be true. At the end of this story, we find out that the characters were making weapons for the peacekeepers, drugged into submission, but wasn’t that submission on some level great? Is it better to be happy and a slave, or free and unhappy? At the end, D’Argo wonders this, and there’s no easy answer. It’s a sign that the show is working that there’s great moral ambiguity in my feelings about the planet and the world they build over the course of the episode. When Crichton asks to get the worm out, is it about regaining his freedom, or is it about his desire to feel like D’Argo and Zhaan do about the world.

The revelation that the peacekeepers are behind the colony ties the episode into the overall plot nicely, and also puts what we’ve seen in perspective. It’s easier to enslave a contented populace than a troubled one? The drugs in the food are the same as the societal distractions we have that prevent us from looking deeper into the problems in our society. Aren’t all of us complicit in the production of weapons like those being built here? Every day we continue our illegal invasion of Iraq, we’re like the people on the planet here. But, it’s hard to do anything about it, perhaps our best prerogative is just to be happy.

“Throne For a Loss” features a similarly interesting philosophical subplot with Zhaan and the soldier. I didn’t particularly like the soldier’s performance, which was all bluster, but the points made were interesting, the way Zhaan is able to fight with love, not hate. It’s very Invisibles, this idea that exposing your humanity is going to do more to deter the enemy than hurling hate at them. By injecting that seed of doubt about their mission, you can change the nature of the war. The soldier may go back to fighting at the end, using the glove to try to eradicate the ambiguities he felt on board the Moya. But, you can tell that what Zhaan said made an impact on him.

Another thing that really impresses me about the show is the Muppet work on Rygel. He’s a fully realized character, and as key to the ensemble as any of the four human actors. I love the craft that goes into him, he’s a great testament to the power of old school technology over CG. He’s more ‘real’ than even a great CG character like Gollum, there’s a tangibility that CG can’t match, and that helps you accept him more as just another character, not an effect.

“Back and Back and Back to the Future” was another really strong episode. There was a lot of trippiness with Crichton’s views of the various futures, and underlying it all was this weird sexual dynamic. The episode made you think more about the Moya as a living thing, and all these emotional beings going around in it. Going into this episode, I was thinking that D’Argo was a bad character, but we got a lot more humanity out of him here.

Crichton’s uncertain feelings about Matala were interesting as well. Too many sci-fi shows avoid sex entirely, and it’s nice to see one delving into the possibilities of interspecies coupling. It’s weird territory, but worth checking out. Even Aeryn got in on things, all of a sudden wearing a cut off shirt. It’s not particularly true to the character, as I see her at least, but she wears it well, so I’ll forgive them. Her and Crichton seem to be the central relationship on the show, and I’m sure there was a ton of shipping for them back when the show was on. They’re great together, and I’m frequently wondering why they don’t just fuck already.

So, I’m really enjoying the show. It’s not as outright great as something like The Wire or The Sopranos, but it’s hitting that Buffy spot of great character based storytelling, throw in a sprinkling of interesting philosophy and it’s looking good for the future. And, notably, most of the episodes have gotten better as they go along, I’m eager to check out the next batch.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Wire: 'React Quotes' (5x05)

After the huge events last week, ‘React Quotes’ is another move the pieces into place episode, the kind of episode that just flies by when you’re watching on DVD, but is a little bit frustrating watching week to week. There’s a lot of good stuff here, but it’s hard to wait a week to get to the rest of the story. Plus, the story primarily focuses on comic and satirical bits, there’s not as much deep emotion here as there was last week.

The best part of the episode is the shootout at the end. People are knocking the scene a bit for its lack of realism, but it’s so much more exciting than the rest of the episode, I’ll let it slide. As I’ve said before, Omar is the incarnation of chaos, so I’ll let the rules of reality slide when it comes to the character. The scene works because we’re emotionally invested in every character in there. I don’t want Omar to die, but at the same time, it would be devastating to lose Michael. It’s strange to see Omar, who has always been the best warrior on the show, totally overmatched for once. Maybe one on one, he could take Snoop or Chris, but as a team, they’re too much for him.

The question we’re left with now is what happens next. I hope we see Omar next week, and find out exactly how he got off the balcony to survive. That bit was a little contrived, but the way the scene was constructed, there was really no choice. They should have made the window a little lower, like a second floor, to make the scene more realistic. What does Omar do now? He can’t beat Snoop and Chris on his own, does he get more allies, or does he try a different tact? The only evidence I’ve got for what happens is the car bomb we see in the opening credits, so it does look like Omar is back on his feet and taking the fight to Marlo.

Along with this, we get the loss of another old timer. That entire generation is dying out, which doesn’t bode well for the co-op next week. But what about Cutty? He’s back this week, working with Dukie. The scene where they talk about how to get off the streets gets to the core of what season four was about, the impossible odds these kids face. With direct mentoring from an adult, they can stay afloat, but left alone, they’re going to slide into drugs. That’s what happened to Dukie, when he got taken away from Prez, he had no real incentive to stay off the street.

But, it’s pretty clear Dukie isn’t meant for the street. No one respects him, and he’s not going to be able to carry a gun. He’s at a crossroads here, he can either totally commit to the streets, work to make himself tougher, or he can go off in a different direction. But, he doesn’t know how to get there. You’d think Cutty would actually have some good advice to offer, as someone who got out of the game and is doing well for himself, but I guess it’s hard for him to realize that. I think Michael should make use of Dukie’s smarts and give him some kind of administrative role within Marlo’s organization. But, I’m still holding out hope that he’ll run into Prez and get set on the right path somehow. Or, maybe him and Michael will see Namond again, and find out how much his life has changed. I’d really like to see Namond and Colvin again, hopefully they’ll turn up in the next couple of episodes.

This episode also brings us a lot of progress with the serial killer plotline. I understand what they’re trying to do with this storyline, and it does tie the police and newspaper storylines together nicely, but it doesn’t really do anything emotionally for me. It’s played mainly for laughs, and while it is funny, Scott is so consistently a devious character, there’s not much conflict. If they had him try to do good occasionally, it’d be one thing, but he just keeps making stuff up, in such an obvious manner, you’d think someone would catch up with him. Lester told McNulty to treat the fake serial killer like a real case, Scott isn’t treating anything like it’s real.

Now, maybe this is setting us up for the fall down the line, but right now, the story is kind of a one joke thing. It’s a funny joke, but it doesn’t have that much thematic depth. The point is, the press doesn’t focus on the real issues, it prefers sensationalism. I think we got that, and the story doesn’t have much more to offer. I think it actually works best as a rebuke to films like Zodiac, which show a detective becoming obsessed with a case, and treat this same material with total seriousness. Beattie punctures that entire worldview when she tells Bunk it’s not the case that’s destroying McNulty, that’s just an excuse. This is probably a more realistic look at what it’s like to pursue a serial killer, people don’t become obsessed with the case so much as they use it to fill a void in their personal lives.

Along those lines, the strongest scenes in the episode are about McNulty’s deteriorating personal life. The scenes with his wife and sons are jarring because those kids have grown up all of a sudden, and you get the sense that McNulty is just as shocked as the viewer to see them like that. His conversation with his wife conveys just how unhinged he’s become, and the scene with Beattie and Bunk drives it home. Bunk doesn’t tell her what’s going on, but he’s clearly tempted. McNulty’s been on a downward spiral the whole season, and that’s what’s really compelling, not the serial killer stuff. I feel like he invented the killer as much to justify his own drunkenness and screwing around as to help the police. He wants to get back to that place he was a few years back, going after Avon and drinking all the time, but this time, it’s hard to watch because we’ve seen who he can be, and how quickly any chance of returning to that place is slipping away.

Elsewhere, Clay Davis mounts a defense campaign so convincing, even I’m starting to believe him. He’s a master of his own version of ‘the game,’ and I’m still not sure that even with all this evidence, the States’ Attorney can take him down. I feel like Bond is going to gamble on a lesser charge to ensure he’s the one to take Davis down, and wind up letting him off the hook. But, we’ve seen a lot of old timers on the way out, Davis may have to take the hit as well. Nerese is looking more and more like the new Clay Davis, making a lot of backroom deals that’ll gain her power and leverage, as well as cutting some deals with criminals that would make Clay proud.

Increasingly, it looks like every character from the first season is being replaced by a younger counterpart. Avon replaced by Marlo, Burrell by Daniels, Colvin by Carver, and I’m guessing McNulty’s going to become the new Freamon. After this serial killer debacle, he could very well find himself defeated and in the pawn shop unit for a long time.

Well, this week moved some pieces into place, and it looks like next week’s going to be when stuff starts really going down. I won’t spoil it for people who didn’t watch the preview, but things are starting to converge.